Sermons

Sermon for Easter 2 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday night Annie and I attended the premiere in Toledo of I Dream, a new opera based on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought it was really cool that the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination was being marked with an opera here in Northwest Ohio. The music was beautiful and the direction and production quite interesting, and while it was technically a little bit rough (perhaps taking it to New York, where audiences are a bit less forgiving, would have been premature), I could see the piece really making waves in a larger market as soon as the kinks are worked out.

My favorite aspect of the opera was that it didn’t shy away from acknowledging Dr. King’s own doubts and fears, both during his work in Birmingham and Selma and, especially, leading up to his death in Memphis in April 1968. It is widely known that Dr. King was remarkably prescient (prophetic, even) when it came to his assassination. The opera does a masterful job investigating King’s own doubts about his mission and the legacy of his work in this final hour before being consoled and inspired (quite literally) by visions of his grandmother, who had first taught him to overcome hate with love, and his wife Coretta who had kept him focused on the struggle during his times of desperation and insecurity. It was beautifully done, and I guess this would be a kind of advertisement for the opera except that (as those of you who are Toledo Opera patrons know) there is only one more performance – this afternoon’s matinee – and when I checked yesterday morning there were very few seats remaining!

Anyway, the reason this element of the opera – its recognition of King’s own doubts and fears – struck me so profoundly might be because I was considering it in light of this week’s Gospel, our annual reminder of poor “Doubting Thomas.” Last year I said that we miss the point of the story if we turn Thomas into a charicature – the icon of incredulity – whether we lambaste his doubting ways or affirm them as the saint par excellence of modernity and scientism. His life as a whole and his response to this Risen Lord in particular is more rich and nuanced than that straw Thomas.

This year I want to focus not on the doubt itself, but what grew out of it- viz., a stronger belief and a commitment to living out that belief as an apostle after the Resurrection. The more I consider doubt as a part of the believer’s life, the less ready I am to make a normative judgment about it. This goes both ways, you might say. Some would reckon doubt of any sort a serious moral failing. I don’t think I’ve ever been of that opinion. Unequivocally denouncing all who would question their own beliefs can lead to a shallow sort of faith or, even worse, to the kind of unquestioning obedience to a set of beliefs and actions which strikes me as an element of cults rather than true religion.

On the other hand, there are those who would elevate doubt itself to a kind of article of faith, as ironic as that may sound. Such an approach might hold that one must question everything to come to any kind of certainty about anything. Now, I love wrestling with hard questions (it’s the philosophy major in me, I guess) and I think new insights often depend on our being open to admitting we were mistaken about some article of faith, even a central one, like the Resurrection. That said, if doubt is the primary mode of religious imagination, it seems to me we’ll never be able to find our footing. We’ll be captive, it seems, to infinite regress. What’s more, to climb back onto my favorite hobby horse, such an approach is helplessly individualistic, finding no recourse to the community of the faithful, the communion of saints of which we are a part, and, thus, more-than-a-little arrogant. No, it seems, if we’re to have any foundation at all, it must be upon convictions which have by some process and at least to some extent been inoculated against doubt.

What if, however, we didn’t view doubt and faith as moral antipodes, but rather as spiritual givens? Each, no doubt, abides alongside the other. Thus the father of the epileptic boy in Mark’s Gospel can without self-contradiction proclaim, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

The blessedness (or happiness to use the more literal translation of the Greek Μακάριος) of those who have not seen and yet believe, then, does not make them morally superior to Thomas, but simply spiritually better off in the moment. It is what is done by that small seed of faith, no matter the concomitant doubt and fear, by which we are judged. That mustard seed of faith was enough to raise Thomas from doubt and despair to a heroic life spent, even to the last, in service of the Gospel. Likewise, young Martin’s faith in the God of love and the moral nature of the universe that same God had created gave him strength throughout his life and to the last to rise above doubt and despair and personal imperfections to do the Good God had intended.

Just so must we acknowledge our misgivings, our uncertainties, our lack of perfect confidence and ask the God of all confidence to give us the strength to persevere in belief and in trust that he will not leave us comfortless. We’ll not be on the wrong path so long as we keep praying for that assurance, so long as we can honetly say, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Easter Day 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Something that I often forget about my religion is just how weird it is. It’s sometimes an interesting exercise to try to look at what we do and what we believe from the perspective of an absolute neophyte. I’ve been so steeped in church culture for so long that this is a rather difficult exercise for me, but I thought it useful since Easter is one of those days where someone with little or no background in my (or perhaps any) religion might feel more comfortable going to church for curiosity’s sake; it is a little easier to blend in on Easter morning. I think that’s great, and if you’re in that boat, welcome.

Anyway, my little exercise in looking at Christianity (and liturgical Christianity specifically) with new eyes remindes me, as I mentioned, just how strange a lot of what we do must seem. I mean, I’m up here in front of a crowd of people dressed like a Fourth Century Roman official who decided to wear his own clothes and his wife’s clothes all at the same time. We sing songs together. Outside of church, most of us haven’t done that since we were forced to go to summer sleepaway camp. We make a sacrifice, albeit a bloodless sacrifice, on an altar to which we bow and kneel. To an outside observer, say an alien anthropologist, this looks positively primitive.

And that’s just stuff we do. Think of what we believe. We believe a virgin conceived a child. We believe someone turned water into wine. We believe that same person fed five thousand people with five small loaves of bread and two small fish. We believe a dead man just got up and walked away from his own grave. We believe that two-thousand years later he is still alive. This stuff is crazy!

And that is why I believe Christianity to be the single most compelling worldview for the modern person. Because, in its purest form, it conspicuously rejects modernity. It is predicated on an epistemology which would cause most analytic philosophers to run screaming into the night. It eludes one’s ordinary human reason. It always will. That’s why we need it. We’ve forgotten how to be creative. We’ve forgotten how to be enticed by the big questions which our existence necessarily entails. We’ve forgotten how to be bowled over by the mystery of it all.

It drives me crazy when I read someone trying to make an empirical argument for a point of faith, particularly the Resurrection. It doesn’t drive me crazy for the typical reason I hear, though; it’s not that evidence precludes faith. Rather, it’s because these arguments don’t allow for mystery, don’t realize that there are just some things in the world we cannot know, and that, far from being a source of disappointment, this is a very exciting thing.

You see, the Resurrection (Christianity in general, actually) is not the kind of mystery that you find on the shelves at Barnes & Noble. Those all make sense by the time you reach the last page. No, the mystery of Christianity is strange. It’s something for which you have to use your imagination and, along with the entire body of the faithful, create some sense and meaning.

This for me is a whole lot more interesting than being given all the answers on a silver platter. It’s a great deal more difficult and a great deal more rewarding than just having to accept a set of propositions. God created us in God’s own image, and that means we are trusted with the capacity to join in on the very act of creation. Don’t be afraid of that. In fact, you can have fun with it. New insights can come from a playful approach to scripture and theology.

So, let’s take an example: “Supposing him to be the gardener.” I remember an image, perhaps from a film (and maybe of you remember this, and can tell me what it’s from): Jesus is hiding behind a bush when he and Mary Magdalene start talking and that’s why she doesn’t recognize him. Now that’s about the most boring, un-mysterious, reasonable explanation possible. Maybe that’s how it went down, but I’d be terribly disappointed if I got to heaven and found out that’s all it was.

What if it was just the gardener, and the story is about how the risen Christ dwells in each of us? That would make sense, but, as far as I’m concerned, it’s only slightly less disappointing than Jesus taking cover in a shrubbery.

Or, maybe it was actually Jesus in the flesh, and Mary mistook him because he was down on his hands and knees with a trowel, gardening. Why would he be doing that? Was this actually the garden outside the tomb, or are we being literarily or even mystically transported back to the Garden of Eden? Maybe he’s replanting the tree of life, and this time we all get to eat from it.

Now, that’s just my weird speculative exegesis, but that’s the point. We’re dealing here with weird stuff, weirder even than funny clothes and grown-up singalongs and arcane rituals. We’re talking about the very order of things being radically changed.

Creation had been rocking along pretty well by itself for about fourteen billion years, and then something bizarre, something so outside the realm of human understanding happened, that space-time got turned on its head. The universe skipped a beat, the Creator so flagrantly breaking the laws he had created. Everything came into sharp focus for just an instant; we saw the light.

And we come back here, week by week, and catch another glimpse – sometimes almost focused, sometimes impossibly blurry, but always there in the Word proclaimed and in the Word made flesh on the altar. It’s strange; it’s inexplicable; it is totally contrary to the way we have all been trained to consume and integrate information. But, if you ask me, it’s about the most exciting, enriching, fun exercise a person can sign up for.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Good Friday 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Who have we crucified this day? A criminal? A radical? A terrorist? Have we not, in fact, crucified all that makes us lovely? Have we not, in fact, crucified all that makes us lovable? We demanded justice and we killed not only a God but all that makes us truly human. In despising the spark of divinity in our brother, we find we have come to hate ourselves. We have murdered a human being, but in so doing we have expelled a god, extradited our Creator from his own Creation.

It is madness, yet we continue to this day. Every man, woman, or child who goes hungry, every sick person that is denied healthcare because of poverty, every maimed or murdered body in Parkland, Florida, every young girl in Africa and the Mideast who is denied education, every young black man in the city streets of our own country who fears for his life, every immigrant whose very being has been reduced to the documents she has in her pockets, every afflicted soul that is stripped of its dignity, cries out as another nail in the hands and feet of Christ, another spear-wound in his side.

We pray. That is necessary, but just as important is that we choose. There are few moral binaries in this sin-sick world, slivers of black and white divided by a sea of gray. But there is one principle which is as zero-sum as it gets. Shall I be the crucifier or shall I be the crucified? Do I love others enough to sacrifice myself for their good, or will I stop short? To what degree will love compel me to act?

There was a song we sang at church camp when I was a kid, and I suspect they’re still singing it: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Do they know we’re Christians? Does the world see in me the same self-giving love to which I’ve pledged my life made manifest or not? Do they find my life a compelling witness to the power of sacrificial love, or do they just see some quasi-charitable window dressing?

Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder if Christ died in vain. Sometimes I read the newspaper and I wonder what in the world was accomplished on Calvary.

But other times I see and feel and taste the love of God powerfully shared through the mediation of my fellow Christian, and I’m brought back from the brink of despair. Sometimes the faintest glimmer of the sunrise can be glimpsed. Was it really dawn or was it a trick, an illusion? Even in the darkest hour, we must hold fast to hope, Christian hope (a fool’s hope, but a folly I must hold onto), which shames the dark powers of this world.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few days of a poem by Thomas Merton, a seemingly inappropriately titled poem- it’s an aubode, a song in celebration of the dawn, yet its content is dark as Good Friday. It speaks of poverty and racism and injustice, the sorts of things which the dawning of the light of Christ ought to have dispelled. But listen carefully (and maybe even look it up and read it for yourself later) and perhaps you too may find a little reason for hope amidst the desperation of our world, for the coming of the true light to dispel our darkness. It is with Merton’s poem that I will conclude.

Aubade-Harlem

Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify, against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.
Soon, in the sterile jungles of the waterpipes and ladders,
The bleeding sun, a bird of prey, will terrify the poor,
These will forget the unbelievable moon.
But in the cells of whiter buildings,
Where the glass dawn is brighter than the knives of surgeons,
Paler than alcohol or ether, shinier than money,
The white men’s wives, like Pilate’s,
Cry in the peril of their frozen dreams:
“Daylight has driven iron spikes,
Into the flesh of Jesus’ hands and feet:
Four flowers of blood have nailed Him to the walls of Harlem.”
Along the white halls of the clinics and the hospitals
Pilate evaporates with a cry:
They have cut down two hundred Judases,
Hanged by the neck in the opera houses and the museum.
Across the cages of the keyless aviaries,
The lines and wires, the gallows of the broken kites,
Crucify, against the fearful light,
The ragged dresses of the little children.